Published: 05:00, 19 October 2021
| Updated: 14:02, 19 October 2021
But is now the optimum time to join the plug-in revolution?
After all, we're talking about a topic in the same way we discussed the rise of the internet 25 years ago – it's not a case of when it takes over, but how quickly.
The advantages, right now, are plentiful. They don't splutter harmful fumes onto our streets, they're hugely cheaper to run, you can bid so long to oil changes and spark plugs and, for now at least, you don't have to fork out for a tax disc. What's not to like?
Well, there are plenty of concerns. And we're going to need to tackle them as we speed towards a ban on the sale of new petrol or diesel cars by 2030 (or 2035 for hybrids).
Does Kent have enough charging points? What happens if I don't have a drive to charge my car on? Can the National Grid handle the expected demand? Is the car's range big enough? And how can I afford one given the current high entry price-point?
Add to that, the need to get used to a whole new world of motoring – say farewell to the clutch and gearbox and hello remarkable acceleration.
Yet despite the challenges, a fifth of all new cars bought in Kent last month were electric models.
And while September was a miserable one for new car dealers around the country (down a third on last year), this shouldn't disguise the fact that the number of electric cars grew by almost 50% on last year's figures.
The national sales of 32,721 was, by way of comparison, three times the number of new diesels sold.
The UK's biggest selling car last month wasn't a Ford, Vauxhall or BMW, but the all-electric Tesla Model 3.
The mood of change, it seems is already here.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), said: "The rocketing uptake of plug-in vehicles, especially battery electric cars, demonstrates the increasing demand for these new technologies.
"However, to meet our collective decarbonisation ambitions, we need to ensure all drivers can make the switch – not just those with private driveways – requiring a massive investment in public recharging infrastructure.
"Charge-point roll-out must keep pace with the acceleration in plug-in vehicle registrations."
So let's tackle that issue first. Because it is, perhaps, the biggest concern. After all, it's all very well saving money on petrol if you can't actually charge the thing.
Electric car batteries work like your phone's. You don't need it to be on 100% all the time but you do need enough 'in the tank' to do what you need it for.
So if you're just doing the school run, chances are you'll need to plug it in infrequently. If you're planning a jaunt to Scotland, however, you don't want to leave home with warning lights already flashing.
First things first, the ideal solution is to charge your electric car at home. Which is a realistic possibility for many, of course, but far from all.
If you're lucky enough to have a driveway, you can, if you wanted to, simply plug in a regular three-pin plug and charge it from your home that way. But that will be slow method and one which, unless you have a power point outside, will involve leaving a cable trailing out of your window overnight.
As an example, a battery with a range of 160 miles would take 17 hours to reach 100% plugged in a conventional socket. Mind you, it will only cost you around £5.
Alternatively, the government's Office for Zero Emission Vehicles department has the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme (EVHS) which provides grant funding of up to 75% (or £350) towards the cost of installing an electric vehicle charge point at your home.
However, the initial outlay, even with the government funding, will cost you around £500 (although some dealers may bundle it in if you haggle). It will, however, give you a full charge in a more reasonable six hours at a cost of around £9.20.
But, let's face it, charging at home is a bit of a luxury. For most users, public charge points are the way forward – using them in the same way we do today to get fuel from a petrol station.
They are going to be more expensive than charging at home – and the prices, and speed of charging, depending on which one you use and how powerful they are.
As an average guide, plugging into a public charger outside a supermarket, for example, will set you back around £7 to £10 for an 80% charge.
Stop off at a motorway services and, you guessed it, you'll pay more. But they tend to offer superchargers which deliver 80% in less than a hour, albeit at a premium price.
Should you be lucky enough to have a Tesla – which has pioneered electric car use – it has its own range of 'supercharger' points, of which there are currently ones in Maidstone, Folkestone, Sevenoaks and Dartford.
They'll normally deliver the equivalent of 200 miles of power in about 15 minutes. Free to customers who bought a Tesla before 2017 – at a charge for all others. But that 80% charge will only set you back £11.50.
What's more, there are currently plenty of different companies offering different ways to pay depending which charger you park next to.
In July, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) warned electric car charging provision at motorway service areas, on local roads and in rural areas is inadequate, adding the all-important infrastructure must be improved ahead of the 2030 ban on petrol and diesel cars.
The rollout of on-street charging by local authorities is “too slow”, while rural areas “risk being left behind” due to a lack of investment in charge points, the regulator said. Which is not going to fill you with confidence.
It says the current 25,000 charge points needed to hit 250,000 to keep pace with expected demand.
AA head of roads policy Jack Cousens believes it is the key barrier to shifting to electric.
He added: "Boosting confidence here will go a long way to accelerate the uptake of electric cars. Drivers want charge points to be as simple as possible to use. Having multiple membership cards and apps makes the process of recharging needlessly complex and confusing.”
Kent County Council, along with seven other local authorities in the country, says it is pushing ahead with plans to install more charging points. Some 153 car parks have been put forward as potential locations and work is due to begin on them later this year.
It is also working with parish councils, town councils, village halls and community hubs to install chargers in smaller communities.
A spokesman added: "We're not currently installing chargers on roads or pavements, instead we are focused on off-street locations such as car parks and new rapid-charging hubs. We have been awarded funding from the government to support our off-street parking projects."
However, despite the CMA's warning, the fact when you drive past most of the existing power points in Kent no-one is charging up on them, suggests they are gearing up for a surge in electric car sales rather than simply servicing the relatively few which are now on our roads.
According to the government, no driver on England's motoways and major A-roads is ever more than 25 miles away from a rapid charge point. And it plans to dramatically multiply the number over the coming years. And the truth is, they are popping up all over the place, from outside supermarkets, to car parks and at existing petrol stations.
In fact, have a look on Zap Map, an online resource to help you locate public charging points, and there are plenty to find.
The next big question, though, is if you're planning that jaunt to Scotland, will you be able to charge up en route?
'Range anxiety' has been the curse of the electric car ever since they started.
"It was a worry a couple of years ago – and I understand why," explains Ben Nelmes, head of policy and research at New AutoMotive, an independent transport research group supporting the uptake of electric vehicles in the UK.
"Back then, the standard electric car had a poor range and there weren't many charge points around.
"Now Britain's got more charge points than it has petrol stations and the most popular electric models all have ranges of above 200 miles. The Kia e-Niro, for example, which is one of the biggest selling electric cars, has a range of 283 miles, the VW ID.3 well over 200 miles. The electric cars which are selling en masse have an impressive range now and that's due to the improvements in battery technology.
"The technology has moved on so fast it's been hard to keep up. But I think range anxiety is increasingly a thing of the past."
Those Tesla Model 3s which are selling like hotcakes will go for 320 miles on a single charge.
It's also easy to be confused with hybrid cars which, as the name suggests, combine a regular old combustion engine with electric. The electric-only range on those tends to be counted in the dozens rather than hundreds.
But with all this extra power flowing into our cars, is there not a danger it could overload the National Grid?
Graeme Cooper is the National Grid’s project director for transport decarbonisation. He explains: "There are two aspects to whether we have the capacity to manage lots of EVs (electric vehicles) being plugged in at once – whether we have enough energy and then whether we have sufficient capacity on the wires that carry that energy to where it’s needed.
"With the first of these, the energy element, the most demand for electricity we’ve had in recent years in the UK was for 62GW in 2002. Since then, due to improved energy efficiency such as the installation of solar panels, the nation’s peak demand has fallen by roughly 16%. Even if the impossible happened and we all switched to EVs overnight, we think demand would only increase by around 10%. So we’d still be using less power as a nation than we did in 2002 and this is well within the range of manageable load fluctuation.
"More complicated though is the issue of when that power demand actually happens – is it all at once or spread through the day and week?
"The traditional evening peak of electricity demand is between 6-8pm, and this might well coincide with people returning from their commute and plugging in their cars.
"If we want to provide sufficient infrastructure and energy for EVs as cheaply as possible for consumers, we ideally don’t want to add to that evening peak and need to spread that demand better.
"With this in mind, recently the government’s EV Energy Taskforce recommended that all future car chargers should be ‘smart by design’. This means that no matter what time you come home and plug your car in at, it will charge when you need it but will pause during that evening peak when energy is most expensive and demand on the grid is highest."
However, he warns there is still work to do.
'National Grid’s transmission system is ever-evolving and suitably robust to cope with the forecast uptake in EVs.'
"When it comes to the capacity of the wires required to deliver that power to the nation’s EV charging points, National Grid’s transmission system is ever-evolving and suitably robust to cope with the forecast uptake in EVs.
"That said, some targeted investment is likely to be needed to ensure there are appropriate places where drivers can access sufficient high power charging away from home. This particularly needs to be on the motorway network to give confidence to those travelling longer distances, to ensure charging does not interrupt those journeys. Fortunately there is already a lot of electricity infrastructure right next to our motorways as power lines are often run beside them for practical reasons.
"The other point to bear in mind here is that the switch to EVs won’t happen overnight and will occur gradually over the coming years."
Talking of upgrades, just how much does it cost to maintain an electric car?
If you like getting your hand dirty under the bonnet, the new breed are going to prove a disappointment.
Explains Ben Nelmes: "The thing we do hear, from electric car drivers, is that the maintenance costs are really cheap because mechanically they are very simple. There's no clutch, no automatic gear box. There's literally just an electric motor and the drive train and the battery. There's just far less to go wrong with them."
But then he would say that wouldn't he?
It is indeed true that electric cars don't rely on the complex series of engineering, explosive, issues which go into firing up and maintaining a combustion engine. Yet they are far more reliant on modern technology. And, as we all know, that is infrequently a by-word for reliability.
There are plenty of reports of software glitches and other problems – much like buying any car today.
As WhatCar? recently reported: "With all the new technology on EVs, there is a school of thought that it’s best to wait until a new model has been on sale for a couple of years, so that all the teething troubles have been sorted out by the time you buy."
Which brings us to a key issue. Is now the time to buy electric? If battery technology has advanced so much over the last two years and charging points are expanding, would it not be better to wait a little longer before taking the plunge?
Not to mention perhaps the biggest stumbling block – the price.
As with all early adopters of new technology, if you want a new electric car today, expect to pay a premium.
You will struggle, in today's market, to get a brand new small electric car for less than £20,000. In fact the Fiat 500 – no big car in anyone's opinion – can be snapped up for a around £13,000 new in a petrol version. By comparison, the all-electric version will set you back another £11,000. Plump for one of those pesky Tesla Model 3s and you're looking at £40,000-plus.
The issue is, as mentioned, there is still no second-hand market in electric cars to talk of yet. And what little there is, commands still chunky prices.
So while few would argue with the benefits of going electric, the reality is the price will deter many for now.
But, says New AutoMotive, that too is set to change.
Explains Ben Nelmes: "I think economies of scale will bring the price down. There are two other reasons to be optimistic about the future price of electric cars; one is the cost of the actual components will come down, due to both advances in technology and by being mass produced.
"The other reason is the UK government is in the process of introducing a California-style scheme to encourage the uptake of electric cars – what that will do is penalise the car manufacturers who don't produce electric cars, and make them pay to reduce the cost of manufacturers who produce lots. That will go a long way to correct that imbalance in the up-front price.
"It is true they are more expensive to buy, but typical motorists will find they save £700 a year in fuel costs by switching to an electric car, even taking into account the cost of buying electricity. So it's a huge saving. Actually people who do lots of miles in particular will notice, very quickly, that upfront capital investment will start repaying itself."
'If you switch early, you get more of that time saving money.'
Not surprisingly, company cars have seen a big switch to electric – with sizeable tax breaks for those employees lucky enough to get a plug-in over a petrol version.
So could holding off save you in the long run?
Believes Ben Nelmes: "I think we've all thought about buying a new phone and then about waiting a further six months. And then waiting again for the next, improved product, six months later. I think the thing people who switch early will find is that they won't have the years spent wasting money on petrol and diesel they could be saving by switching to electric. So if you switch early, you get more of that time saving money.
"When it comes to second hand, electric cars have only been around for a few years, so there's not much of a second hand market, so you may find you have to wait, but they will come through."
And when they do, just what can you expect?
Well, firstly, forget changing gear anymore, and prepare to be able to experience some rapid acceleration.
Explains Nelmes: "Two things people say to us is that they are very relaxing cars to drive as you don't have a motor whirring away underneath and, as you don't have to concentrate on using the clutch, a very smooth drive.
"When you put your foot on the accelerator it just goes because, unlike a conventional car, you have to get the revs quite high before you get high acceleration.
"In an electric car, it's instant. You press it, it's maximum output. Slow or fast you have the same level of acceleration. Which people find tremendous fun."
There's no oil changes needed, many electric cars use touch screens as standard instead of the old dials which had to show revs and engine temperature, and that big clumpy bit between passengers which used to contain the gearbox is completely missing in some models, or turned into useful storage space.
Electric cars, like the idea or not, are coming.
Go Compare estimates there will be just over 950,000 registered electric cars on our roads by the end of the year – a figure it predicts will climb to over 3.8 million by 2031.
One way or another, we will all have to convert at some point.